History of Pipestone

Pipestone is a name used to describe a soft stone that can be easily carved. While such stones are found in many locations around the world, Pipestone typically refers to Catlinite, a red stone found in Minnesota. Catlinite has been mined by Native American tribes in the region since at least 1200, and perhaps as far back as 900, to make ceremonial pipes for religious and civic ceremonies. When someone mentions, a “Peace Pipe” they are referencing the pipes made from Catlinite which were ritualistically smoked to end conflicts and broker peace agreements.

Various tribes have controlled the pipestone quarries at different eras. But since 1700, the area has been firmly claimed by the Sioux, a group of tribes which includes the Lakota and the Dakota. While the history of the United States and Native Americans is often a tragic tale of broken treaties and abuse, Pipestone is one of the cases in which treaties have been honored. Traditionally, the Pipestone quarries were a neutral ground and tribes would journey there in order to collect the soft stone. The area was largely controlled by the Yankton Dakota because that tribe was settled nearest the quarries, and so their permission was typically asked before another tribe entered the area. The Yankton Dakota’s claim to the land is documented back to 1700. In 1836, George Catlin (1796-1872), an American artist and adventurer, visited the area and sketched the region and its inhabitants. Along the way, he collected a few pieces of Pipestone and eventually brought them back east. When geologists realized that the rock had a unique chemical composition, they named it Catlinite in his honor.

By 1858, white settlers had reached the area and a treaty was written which protected the quarry and gave full legal and economic rights to the native people, stating, “The said Yankton Indians shall be secure in the free and unrestricted use of the red pipestone quarry.” Unsurprisingly, some of the settlers disagreed, attempting to mine or even sell the lands.

When the town of Pipestone was found in 1873, these tensions were exasperated. But the US Infantry sided with the Tribe, and even forcibly removed white squatters from the quarries. Nevertheless, legal battles and illegal mining would continue for decades. Eventually the situation was brought to the attention of the United States Supreme Court, which sided with the Yankton Dakota. The ruling forced the United States government to compensate the Tribe at a cost of over $100,000 (today $1.5 million) for the illegal activities of the settlers. In 1937, Congress made the pipestone quarries and surrounding area into Pipestone National Monument. Only Native Americans with tribal permission from the Yankton Dakota tribe are allowed to mine there. The mining is done in the old way, completely by hand, often with just a single individual hard at work. Some of the pipestone is used to make pipes, but that is not a requirement for the mining.

The Sioux have numerous legends which speak to the cultural importance of Pipestone. One legend, told in 1969 by Lame Deer to Richard Erados, in Winner, South Dakota, was collected for the book American Indian Myths and Legends. The story tells that when the world was freshly made, the water monster Unktehi fought with the people. The Great Spirit was angry with the people and allowed Unktehi to win and bring a huge flood to cover the lands. Everything was under water, except for a hill next to what is now the pipestone quarries. The people tried to climb the hill and escape, but they were all killed by falling rocks and the rising water. Their blood soaked into the ground, staining the pipestone red. The only survivor was a girl, who was saved by a giant eagle, Wanblee Galeshka, who flew her to a safe spot on the highest pinnacle of the Black Hills. The girl married the eagle and became the mother of the Lakota Oyate tribe, the Eagle Nation. She taught her children to honor Pipestone above all other rocks, because it contains the blood of their ancestors.

In 1933, Chief Standing Bear wrote about Pipestone’s significance to the Lakota tribe, in his book Land of the Spotted Eagle. He wrote, “All the meanings of mortal duty, ethics, religious and spiritual conceptions were symbolized in the pipe. It signified brotherhood, peace, and the perfection of Wankan Tanka (the Great Spirit), and to the Lakota people the pipe stood for what the Bible, church, state and flag, all combined, represented to the mind of the white man.”